WATERVILLE — In the film “Secretary,” which aired this week at the Maine International Film Festival, there is a key scene in which co-star James Spader stands behind Maggie Gyllenhaal, the secretary of the title, who is bent over his desk.

He violates her.

The scene is an example of the unusual and complex relationship that develops between the two characters, but it is also an example of the work of Pam Wise, the film editor who worked on “Secretary” and who is making multiple appearances as a special guest at the festival.

Wise said she and the director sparred over the scene, which she called mortifying.

“The director said, ‘This is Spader’s scene,'” she said. “Having seen Maggie’s face, I said, ‘No, this is Maggie’s scene.’ That was a case where I fought hard.”

Wise said she felt strongly about it because Spader’s emotions were constant throughout the scene, while viewers would most want to know how Gyllenhaal’s character would react.

“Spader was wonderful, but I wanted to be sure that you could glean what was going on in her head,” Wise said. “What’s she going to do? Is she going to smack him?”

Wise said the outcome was a compromise, in which the scene remained primarily on Gyllenhaal’s face, but cut back to Spader intermittently to help the viewer keep track of the action.

That film editing decision, and many more like it, helped to shape the film into one that kept Gyllenhaal as the film’s central focus, and that ultimately was more empowering and thought-provoking than demeaning for women.

A film editor does what Wise calls “the final rewrite” of a film, working with a director to transform a pile of footage into a coherent movie that will carry readers through interwoven storylines in the best way possible.

The process is fraught with politics, she said, because a director will usually be intimately involved with the filming and subject matter, while she brings a fresh perspective that is closer to that of the audience.

Some directors are very involved with the process, while others are much more hands-off, she said. But there is always the potential for conflict.

“Ultimately, the buck stops with him,” Wise said. “To make my point, I’ll usually show alternatives and explain why I like it.”

Wise said changes in the film industry are making it more difficult to be a film editor.

At the same time the budgets for Hollywood’s biggest blockbusters are growing — “Pacific Rim,” a monster-driven action movie that opened this month, cost about $200 million to make — while the budgets for independent films and documentaries are shrinking, squeezing the amount of money available to pay film editors.

Sometimes Wise is hired for just a couple of weeks, to get the footage into good enough shape for a less experienced person to do the finishing touches.

Films do better with a film editor’s full attention, she said. There are times when a film editor actually contributes new elements to a movie.

For example, in “Transamerica,” which stars Felicity Huffman as a character who is preparing for male-to-female surgery, Wise noticed that the footage lacked a sense of urgency surrounding a narrowing window of time in which Huffman could travel across the country to get to her operation in time.

“She didn’t seem concerned, the way that she should be,” Huffman said.

To fix the problem, Wise wrote new dialogue of phrases like “my surgery is in five days,” and then recorded herself saying the lines to get the timing right. Huffman eventually recorded Wise’s dialogue herself, and the new audio was added to the film, carefully spliced into scenes in which Huffman’s lips weren’t visible.

Wise will make two appearances at the film festival over the weekend. The first will be at a showing of “Dancemaker,” an Academy Award-nominated documentary that explores the triumph, and the ruthlessness, on display as the Paul Taylor Dance Company prepares a show in New York City.

Wise said that, when she began working on Dancemaker, which will screen at 6:30 p.m. today at the Waterville Opera House, it was 150 hours of raw footage with no script. It has become the film she is most proud of, she said, because “the footage was so fabulous and I was given a lot of creative freedom to write and edit it,” she said.

She will also be on hand during a showing of her music videos Sunday, which will include everything from Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” to Waylon Jenning’s tribute song about Hank Williams. The 51-minute presentation will be held at 3 p.m. Sunday at Railroad Square Cinema.

Matt Hongoltz-Hetling — 861-9287
[email protected]

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